It's a beautiful Monday morning in the city. The rain is pouring. The birds aren't chirping. And dead people are turning up all over the place.
Okay, it's not lovely at all.
Veteran Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) plans on retiring in seven days. Not-as-veteran hotshot Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) has just moved to the city and is partnered with Somerset to learn the ropes. Little does he know how twisted these ropes are going to be.
Murder #1: The two first investigate the murder of a man who seems to have been fed until he burst.
Somerset thinks that Mills should be put on a different case, and the captain agrees.
Murder #2: Mills is soon sent to a crime scene where an attorney has been murdered in his office. The word "greed" is scrawled on the floor in blood. While Mills is poking around there, Somerset discovers something at the first crime scene: the word "gluttony" behind a fridge.
Yeah, these murders are connected.
Because Wikipedia hasn't been invented yet, Somerset hits the library to research the seven deadly sins. Mills' wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), invites him over for a yummy dinner, and after, Somerset and Mills try to find connections in the cases.
Murder #3: After asking the lawyer's widow a few questions, they find a hidden message behind a painting: "help me," written with fingerprints. The fingerprints belong to Victor Allen, but Allen isn't the killer. He's the next victim—a man whom the real killer has kept tied to a bed, starving, for a year. He's also missing a hand. Above the bed, it says "sloth." This isn't good.
Tracy invites Somerset to breakfast and tells him that she's pregnant. She doesn't want to tell her husband because she's not sure if she wants to keep it. She hates the city so much and doesn't want to raise a kid there.
Uh, with all of these repulsive murders, we understand why.
Somerset contacts an FBI agent he knows, and the agent secretly searches FBI computers for someone who has checked out a bunch of books about the seven deadly sins. They find a guy whose name is Jonathan Doe—literally John Doe—and pay him a visit.
John Doe walks up while the detectives are at his apartment door, and he opens fire. Mills chases him, injuring his arm in the process, and almost gets killed by Doe after Doe corners him in an alleyway. But Doe spares Mills.
The detectives enter his apartment. We get a neon cross over a bed. A darkroom filled with photos of the victims. Journals filled with crazy rantings. This guy is definitely the killer.
Murders #4 and #5: The detectives soon discover two more victims: a prostitute whose death we won't even describe because it's just too awful (lust) and a woman who committed suicide with sleeping pills instead of letting anyone save her after her face had been cut (pride).
Just when it seems like Doe is going to complete all seven murders, he turns himself in to police.
And ... he's Kevin Spacey.
What gives? He says he will lead them to the final two victims. So, off they go into the desert together—the most gruesome road trip ever. When they reach the middle of nowhere, there's nothing there. It's the very definition of nowhere.
A delivery van shows up. While Mills stands watch over John Doe, Somerset goes to open the package. As Somerset opens it in the distance ("What's in the booooox?!"), Doe tells Mills that he visited his wife before turning himself in. Doe envied Mills' normal life, but it just didn't work out, so he took a souvenir:
"Her pretty head." (Envy.)
Murder #6: Yep, that's what was in the box. And it was the ultimate OMG moment of 1995.
Somerset (confirming that her head is, indeed, in the box) runs back to Mills, who's holding a gun to Doe's head. Somerset tries to get him to drop the gun, reminding him that this is exactly what Does wants.
But when Doe tells Mills that his wife begged for her life and the life of her unborn child—remember, Mills didn't even know she was pregnant—Mills shoots him.
And then he shoots him again.
And again. And again and again and again.
Murder #7: Wrath.
Mills is put into a police car and taken away. Somerset quotes Hemingway in a voice-over: "'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."
Sounds like he might continue fighting, but in this movie, there are no winners.